‘BE­ING 80 IS NOT A SCARY THING’

At 80, Yoko Ono has a new al­bum, re­mains an ac­tivist and is happy to talk about John Len­non, writes Fiona Sturges

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IAL­WAYS knew she was small but, even so, I’m not quite pre­pared for how teeny and bird-like Yoko Ono is. Or, come to think of it, how glamorous. The home movies taken by her and John Len­non in the 1970s re­veal a fig­ure with big, fluffy hair and pen­sive, wary fea­tures. But the woman sit­ting next to me is smil­ing broadly and is stylishly clad in dark jeans, tight black sweater and chunky boots. Her hair is cropped and spiky and her sig­na­ture sun­glasses sit halfway down her nose, her eyes twin­kling over the top. She is part rock star, part sexy li­brar­ian.

We meet in an apart­ment in a smart ho­tel in the cen­tre of Helsinki, her lat­est stop dur­ing a short Euro­pean tour with Thurston Moore of alt-rock band Sonic Youth. It seems im­per­ti­nent to men­tion her age, ex­cept that it’s so very star­tling. Yoko, whom the night be­fore our in­ter­view I wit­nessed shriek­ing, ul­u­lat­ing and pranc­ing about on stage in front of a rapt au­di­ence, is 80. Up close, she could pass for 50. The only creases on her face are laugh­ter lines.

Yoko, I ask, do you ever think about tak­ing it easy and just lolling about in the gar­den, watch­ing the birds? ‘‘ Ahaha, no!’’ she gig­gles, wav­ing a dis­mis­sive hand. ‘‘ I don’t think I’m there yet. So­ci­ety tells you that when you’re old you have to re­tire. You have to defy that. Please know that be­ing 80 is not a scary thing. When you’re 80, your life is much freer. I have en­ergy. I walk a lot but also I work all the time. We don’t live by just sleep­ing and eat­ing. We need pride and dig­nity in our lives. Work gives you that. Art is like breath­ing for me. If I don’t do it, I start to choke.’’

You don’t so much in­ter­view Ono as sit in awe and of­fer the odd prompt while she shares her hard-won wis­dom and hop­scotches across the decades. Some of my ques­tions are ig­nored, oth­ers an­swered 10 min­utes af­ter I’ve asked them, but it doesn’t mat­ter. Her mem­o­ries are freighted with his­tory.

Prior to our meet­ing, I had imag­ined that Ono, dubbed by her third hus­band John Len­non as ‘‘ the world’s most fa­mous un­known artist’’, might have grown weary of dis­cussing her years as a Bea­tle wife, but I was wrong. She de­lights in talk­ing about their life to­gether.

Of course she has spent more than half a life­time be­ing pil­lo­ried for her re­la­tion­ship with Len­non, whom she met in 1966 and mar­ried in 1969. She is rou­tinely blamed for the Bea­tles’ split in 1970, hav­ing been painted as the evil temptress who took Len­non’s fo­cus off the band while hang­ing on the coat­tails of his celebrity. In 1974, she hit back at the misog­yny and racism — the two most grimly con­verg­ing in a 1970 Esquire fea­ture ti­tled ‘‘ John Ren­non’s Ex­cru­sive Gloupie’’ — with the song Yes, I’m a Witch (‘‘I’m a witch, I’m a bitch, I don’t care what you say. My voice is real, my voice speaks truth, I don’t fit in your ways’’).

If 45 years as a pariah has weighed heav­ily on her, she hides it well. While in the past she has ad­mit­ted to mo­ments of fury, she tells me ‘‘ that world [of vit­riol] is mostly blocked out to me. John and I were both mu­si­cians and, at the same time, artists and film­mak­ers and ac­tivists. We had so much to talk about. So we were busy with our own lives, and peo­ple say­ing bad things about us was very far away. I have had an in­cred­i­ble life. I don’t mean that in a fairy­tale way, but an in­cred­i­ble and busy work­ing life.’’

That work­ing life is the sub­ject of an ex­hi­bi­tion, War is Over! (If You Want It): Yoko Ono, open­ing at Syd­ney’s Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art in Novem­ber. Ono worked with MCA chief cu­ra­tor Rachel Kent on the show.

And still the work con­tin­ues. She has just re­leased a new al­bum with the Plas­tic Ono Band, Take Me to the Land of Hell. As is cus­tom­ary on her al­bums, a size­able por­tion is taken up with the pri­mal, gut­tural howl­ing that through the years has proved enor­mously po­tent to some and nerve-shred­dingly aw­ful to oth­ers. But there are also mo­ments of quiet melan­choly, of ten­der­ness and beauty. Were the al­bum made by an artist 60 years younger, it would seem an ac­com­plished ex­cur­sion into avant-garde am­bi­ent and noise-rock. Com­ing from the oc­to­ge­nar­ian Ono, it’s re­mark­able.

She says she doesn’t lis­ten much to new mu­sic; the mu­sic she makes is en­tirely in­stinc­tive. ‘‘ Peo­ple tell me this kind of mu­sic is young peo­ple’s mu­sic and I tell them, ‘ I was do­ing this kind of mu­sic be­fore you were born.’ ’’ Her son Sean Len­non co-pro­duces her al­bums and ad­vises her on col­lab­o­ra­tions ( Take Me to the Land of Hell fea­tures guest ap­pear­ances from the hip-hop artist Quest­love, Wilco’s Nels Cline and Lenny Kravitz). ‘‘ In the stu­dio I’m hands-on but I lis­ten to my son. He is my mu­si­cal di­rec­tor now. I will talk to him about get­ting some­one to play. I say, ‘ Why not get so-and-so?’ and he says, very gen­tly as he knows my re­bel­lious na­ture, ‘ No Mummy, please get th­ese peo­ple. They know your work and they love it.’ And I go, ‘ OK, then.’ ’’

Among per­form­ers ex­press­ing their ap­pre­ci­a­tion of Ono is Lady Gaga, whose work also blurs the bound­aries be­tween mu­sic and con­cep­tual art. In­deed, there has been a groundswell of sup­port for Ono, a be­lated recog­ni­tion of her role as a cul­tural pi­o­neer and ac­tivist of rare pas­sion (at present she is lead­ing a starstud­ded cam­paign against frack­ing).

In 2009, she was awarded the life­time achieve­ment Golden Lion at the Venice Bi­en­nale, while ear­lier this year she was asked to cu­rate the South­bank Cen­tre’s Melt­down fes­ti­val in Lon­don, an hon­our pre­vi­ously be­stowed on David Bowie, Patti Smith and Scott Walker. Has she no­ticed a greater ac­cep­tance, I won­der.

SHE IS PART ROCK STAR, PART SEXY LI­BRAR­IAN

‘‘ Ac­cep­tance? Prob­a­bly yes,’’ she replies. ‘‘ But it’s a strange thing. This is what you ob­serve, though I don’t think in those terms.’’

Or per­haps the world has come around to your way of think­ing? She nods in agree­ment. ‘‘ Yes, you know this has hap­pened a lot for me. For in­stance, for a long time I’ve been talk­ing about frack­ing and how dam­ag­ing it is, and the word is spread­ing now. It’s great to see.’’

She is a firm be­liever in ‘‘ peo­ple’s power’’. ‘‘ We can make pos­i­tive things hap­pen by en­velop­ing the planet with love and wis­dom,’’ she says. ‘‘ You have to re­mem­ber that peo­ple are the ma­jor­ity and the peo­ple who are sup­pos­edly con­trol­ling us are the mi­nor­ity. They only do what they do be­cause we have be­come

sheep. But I think our un­der­stand­ing about life is get­ting in­creas­ingly strong and wise.’’

The pre­vi­ous night Ono told her au­di­ence that heaven on earth will ar­rive in 2050. What did she mean? ‘‘ Ah yes, this is be­cause ev­ery­one is stuck in this idea that there’s go­ing to be a dooms­day,’’ she says. ‘‘ And it’s so silly. Dooms­day sounds like a very com­fort­able thing to hap­pen. We all die to­gether. Oh great! But I have seen things in Hiroshima and it doesn’t hap­pen that way. You don’t just die right away, there’s this very slow death and each one is dif­fer­ent. You are not all to­gether. All of us will be very hun­gry be­cause ev­ery­thing will be de­stroyed. Star­va­tion and ill­ness, those are the things that are go­ing to hap­pen. Do you want to choose that, or do you want to make sure this planet is go­ing to be bet­ter and that it has a fu­ture?’’

I re­mark on how she is hailed as a fem­i­nist crusader, bat­tling against tra­di­tional no­tions of fem­i­nin­ity (among the many ob­jec­tions to her re­la­tion­ship with Len­non was her per­ceived plain­ness and her re­fusal to play the mute clothes horse) and pur­su­ing her own path in the face of fe­ro­cious, and mostly male, op­po­si­tion. In 1951, she was the first fe­male stu­dent to be granted a place to study phi­los­o­phy at Tokyo’s Gakushuin Univer­sity. Even then, I note, she was chip­ping away at the pa­tri­ar­chal or­der. ‘‘ Well, back then I was not in­ten­tion­ally fight­ing,’’ she re­flects, ‘‘ but maybe my ex­is­tence de­fied the roles given to women. I knew that if you al­low them, women bring out their true self, which is strong and tal­ented and pow­er­ful. But the world didn’t want to know about that. The world wanted to keep women down.’’

When she first met Len­non, af­ter he wan­dered into her one-woman show at a Lon­don art gallery, he was, she says, ‘‘ this ma­cho guy. I was ob­serv­ing him and I wasn’t im­pressed at all, though I un­der­stood his vul­ner­a­ble side.’’ In 1972, he would pub­licly ac­knowl­edge his chau­vin­ism and, in­spired by an ex­cerpt from Yoko’s in­struc­tional book Grape­fruit, write the song Woman is the Nig­ger

of the World. It’s quite an achieve­ment, to have turned a Bea­tle into a fem­i­nist.

‘‘ As I said,’’ she says, her eyes twin­kling, ‘‘ even­tu­ally things come around to the way I per­ceive them. If you are do­ing some­thing log­i­cal, it pre­vails. I’m a very prag­matic per­son.’’

Did she hes­i­tate be­fore en­ter­ing into a fully fledged re­la­tion­ship with Len­non? ‘‘ Of course,’’ she replies. ‘‘ The main thing that made me hes­i­tate was his en­tourage, as it was clear they hated me. I thought hard about whether I wanted to get into that sit­u­a­tion. But we had so much in com­mon, which was odd be­cause he was from Liver­pool and I was from Tokyo. We sim­ply thought the same way about things.’’ So love won out in the end? ‘‘ Yes,’’ she says smil­ing. ‘‘ Love won.’’

Born in 1933, Ono was the daugh­ter of a clas­si­cal-pi­anist-turned-banker fa­ther and a painter mother. Her well-to-do fam­ily hoped she would fol­low in her fa­ther’s foot­steps and be­come a con­cert pi­anist, though Ono had other plans. The fam­ily moved be­tween New York and Tokyo through­out her child­hood, though they were in Tokyo when war broke out and when the city was bombed in 1945, killing 100,000 peo­ple. The Onos found them­selves ex­chang­ing fam­ily heir­looms for food.

At 18, af­ter two semesters at Gakushuin, Ono dropped out and moved back to New York, en­rolling at the Sarah Lawrence Col­lege, a lib­eral arts col­lege known for its em­pha­sis on the links be­tween ac­tivism and cre­ativ­ity. There she forged con­nec­tions with the fledg­ling avant-garde, in­clud­ing the com­poser John Cage and mem­bers of the Fluxus group. In the 1960s, she be­gan ex­hibit­ing and stag­ing ‘‘ hap­pen­ings’’ — her most fa­mous work Cut Piece found her sit­ting mo­tion­less as strangers snipped away at her cloth­ing with scis­sors. What did her par­ents think of her work? ‘‘ My mother was in­tel­li­gent and opin­ion­ated. The way she ex­pressed how she felt was by not talk­ing about it at all.’’

Fol­low­ing the break­down of her first mar­riage to com­poser Toshi Ichiyanagi, she met and mar­ried the Amer­i­can art pro­moter Tony Cox and had a daugh­ter, Kyoko. The cou­ple sep­a­rated af­ter Ono met Len­non, af­ter which Cox re­mar­ried and joined a re­li­gious sect known as The Walk.

Af­ter a cus­tody hear­ing over their daugh­ter went in Ono’s favour, Cox packed up his and Kyoko’s be­long­ings and van­ished with her. With the help of the po­lice and pri­vate in­ves­ti­ga­tors, Ono launched a world­wide search for her daugh­ter but she was never traced. It later tran­spired that she and her fa­ther were mov­ing from place to place on the west coast of Amer­ica and liv­ing un­der dif­fer­ent names. ‘‘ It was a kid­nap­ping, and it was ter­ri­ble,’’ Ono re­calls mourn­fully. ‘‘ It was dif­fer­ent for her. She was OK and she didn’t un­der­stand what was hap­pen­ing. She didn’t suf­fer so much at the time, al­though later it was dif­fi­cult for her to cope.’’

Aged 31 and ex­pect­ing a child, Kyoko got in touch with her mother in 1994, ask­ing to meet. ‘‘ I didn’t know what it was go­ing to be like,’’ says Ono. ‘‘ I was very ner­vous. But she’s a very in­tel­li­gent and sen­si­tive woman, I’m very proud of her. We are friends now.’’

With­out prompt­ing, Ono tells me about an­other low point in the 70s, when she and Len­non sep­a­rated. ‘‘ The night that [the Demo­cratic can­di­date] Ge­orge McGovern lost the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion [to Richard Nixon], all of us were very up­set,’’ she re­calls. ‘‘ John got drunk and was out of it. Any­way, [the ac­tivist] Jerry Ru­bin in­vited all th­ese peo­ple to his apart­ment, so we got in the car and went.

‘‘ John was stag­ger­ing around and he went into an­other room — there were only two rooms and the walls were thin — and he started mak­ing love to a woman. It was loud and some­one was kind and tried to turn up the mu­sic but, you know, it was Bob Dy­lan and he’s pretty quiet. It was a very tense scene. The peo­ple who were in­vited there were mostly New York jour­nal­ists, but they were very civilised about it.’’ The next day, Len­non apol­o­gised and spoke of the love he had for her that could over­come such a mean­ing­less, drunken act. ‘‘ But I felt, ‘ Well, if he can do this, for­get it!’ I mean, we were to­gether and for a while he was be­hav­ing so well, I thought it must have been killing him. So I even­tu­ally told him, ‘ You go to LA, you do what you want to do and let’s see what hap­pens.’ ’’

The pair sep­a­rated for 18 months, dur­ing which Len­non had a re­la­tion­ship with his as­sis­tant May Pang. But in late 1974, he and Ono re­united, af­ter which she be­came preg­nant with their son Sean. ‘‘ It was great that I gave him that freedom,’’ she re­calls. ‘‘ It was the log­i­cal choice. At the time I thought to my­self, ‘ Well, I can do what­ever I want to do, too.’ ’’ She pauses and laughs. ‘‘ But it didn’t work out that way. Can you be­lieve it?’’

Ono still lives in the Dakota build­ing in New York where she lived with Len­non and where, out­side the en­trance, he was shot dead by Mark Chap­man in 1980. ‘‘ Peo­ple ask me, ‘ Why are you still liv­ing in the place where the tragedy hap­pened?’ ’’ she tells me. ‘‘ I say, ‘ It was our home. You don’t just leave home.’ ’’

She is, she says, a pri­vate per­son, though she is fre­quently spot­ted by ad­mir­ers who go up and talk to her. ‘‘ Given all that has hap­pened in life, I will not com­plain about that. I sup­pose I don’t go to the theatre so much be­cause I get stuck in the dark with peo­ple talk­ing to me. Most of the time I go out­side in the early morn­ing, when I don’t get too has­sled.’’

All th­ese years af­ter Len­non’s death, I ask Ono what it’s like talk­ing end­lessly about him.

‘‘ It’s fine, it’s fine. I miss him and when peo­ple talk about him and ask me things, they make it sound like he’s still around.’’ She smiles and adds: ‘‘ And that makes me feel happy.’’

Take Me to the Land of Hell is out now.

War Is Over! (If You Want It): Yoko Ono is at Syd­ney’s Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art from Novem­ber 15.

Clock­wise from top, Yoko Ono; Ono at the open­ing of her Half-a-Wind

Show ret­ro­spec­tive in Frank­furt in Fe­bru­ary this year; with John Len­non in 1973

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